The first session of the 111th Congress convened on 6 January 2009 and adjourned on 24 December of the same year. A total of 108 bills and resolutions relating to Palestine, Israel, or the wider Arab-Israeli conflict were introduced this session, representing roughly 1% of bills and resolutions introduced this term. Twenty-four of the 108 were passed.
Democrats enjoyed wide majorities in both chambers this session following victories in the fall 2008 elections, which also saw the election of Democrat Barack Obama as president. In 2009, Democrats held 59 seats in the Senate (supplemented by two Independent senators, who caucus with them) to the Republicans’ 39, and 257 seats in the House to the Republicans’ 178. In this session, a number of measures were introduced by conservative Republicans aimed at restricting U.S. relief efforts (such as aid for Gaza in the wake of Operation Cast Lead) and at pressuring the Obama administration to take a harder line toward Iran and other U.S. opponents in the region (see especially H.R. 3832 of 10/15/09, the Peace Through Strength Act). Many of these efforts dovetailed with aggressive Republican opposition to domestic Democratic legislative initiatives. Some, such as an amendment to prohibit reconstruction assistance to Gaza until assurances could be secured that it would not be diverted to Hamas (S. Amendment 631 to H.R. 1105 of 2/23/09), drew support from some otherwise moderate Democrats. Other initiatives demonstrate the degree to which Democrats and Republicans remained in alignment with respect to Israel-Palestine.
Bills and Joint Resolutions
Sixty-three of the 108 measures introduced this session were bills or joint resolutions that have the force of law if passed. Six of these, each involving funding for Israel, were passed by both the House and Senate and signed into law by President Obama. The National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 2647 of 6/2/09) granted legal authority for the Defense Department to conduct joint research and development with Israel for Israeli missile defense systems, while the Department of Defense Appropriations Act (H.R. 3326 of 7/24/09) provided funding for these programs (see “Notes on Legislative Procedure” below for more on the distinction between authorization and appropriation bills). The annual funding bill for U.S. agricultural agencies and programs (H.R. 2997 of 6/23/09) contained an earmark providing funding to the Ohio-Israel Initiative, a project promoting technical and economic cooperation between farmers and agriculture firms in Ohio and the Negev. The remaining three bills provided funding for the State Department and U.S. foreign assistance programs for fiscal year 2009 (H.R. 1105 of 2/23/09 and H.R. 2346 of 5/12/09) and fiscal year 2010 (H.R. 3288 of 7/22/09). All three of these bills provided grants for Israel to purchase military equipment from the United States (and, significantly, from Israeli defense contractors; see these bills for explanation) at levels agreed to in the August 2007 Memorandum of Understanding between the two governments.
The foreign aid bills also provided assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and financed other aid programs in the West Bank and Gaza. The Supplemental Appropriations Act (H.R. 2346 of 5/12/09) provided a large aid package pledged by the Obama administration in the wake of Operation Cast Lead. Funding measures for West Bank and Gaza programs, especially for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and programs in Gaza, were passed despite repeated attempts by the Republican right to cut the funding entirely or greatly restrict it for fear that it would aid Hamas or other terrorist groups (see amendments SA 631 and SA 657 to H.R. 1105 of 2/23/09 below, as well as H.R. 557 of 1/15/09, H.R. 1062 of 2/13/09, H.R. 2475 of 5/19/09, and amendments 44, 60, and 83 to H.R. 3081 of 6/26/09 online at CongressionalMonitor.org).
Congressional Priorities: Iran, Terrorism, and the Holocaust
Of all the bills and joint resolutions relevant to Israel-Palestine introduced this session, 25 (40%) sought to provide military, financial, or diplomatic aid for Israel or to otherwise confer privileges on the Israeli government, Israeli citizens, or Israeli exports. In addition to the six bills passed into law, other bills sought to set U.S. policy to pursue a nuclear power cooperation agreement with Israel (H.R. 2475 of 5/19/09); amend U.S. arms export control laws to allow expedited arms sales to Israel (H.R. 2410 of 5/12/09 and H.R. 2475 of 5/19/09); provide diplomatic support for Israel at the United Nations, specifically in the Human Rights Council (H.R. 2376 of 5/12/09) and with regard to the Durban Review Conference (H.R. 1920 of 4/2/09 and H.R. 3231 of 7/16/09); provide privileged immigration status for Israeli citizens seeking to conduct business in the United States (H.R. 4406 of 12/6/09); allow Israeli prescription medications to be imported to the United States (S. 80 of 1/6/09); exempt Israeli citizens from the prohibition on the U.S. government employing foreign nationals (H.R. 3170 of 7/10/09); and eliminate the duty on a type of Israeli tobacco (S. 2042 of 10/29/09).
Another major priority this session was Iran, with a number of bills introduced to impose sanctions aimed at stopping its nuclear program. Two of these bills, the Senate and House versions of the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (S. 908 of 4/28/09 and H.R. 2194 of 4/30/09), which would require the president to impose sanctions designed to cripple the Iranian economy, were the primary focus of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobbying efforts this session. These two bills had (and still have) overwhelming support in both chambers; their passage was delayed only to allow the Obama administration time to address Iran’s nuclear program diplomatically. Other bills sought to declare U.S. policy to be in support of Israel’s right to defend itself from Iran, where self-defense is interpreted to include a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities (H.R. 2475 of 5/19/09 and H.R. 3832 of 10/15/09); or invoked the Iranian threat to Israel to authorize the Defense Department to develop ballistic missile defense systems for Israel (H.R. 2410 of 5/14/09, H.R. 2475 of 5/19/09, and H.R. 2647 of 6/2/09).
Twenty-two bills (35% of relevant bills) dealing with terrorism were introduced, the most important of which being the three appropriations bills passed into law providing aid to the West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon (H.R. 1105 of 2/23/09, H.R. 2346 of 5/12/09, and H.R. 3288 of 7/22/09). These bills provided money to train Palestinian security forces and to train and equip Lebanese security forces to conduct counter-terror operations. These bills also contained numerous provisions placing conditions on the aid to ensure that it does not go to terrorist groups. Other bills sought to impose sanctions on North Korea (S. 837 of 4/20/09, H.R. 1980 of 4/21/09, and S. 1416 of 7/8/09), Saudi Arabia (H.R. 1288 of 3/3/09), and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (H.R. 2375 of 5/12/09), and to continue sanctions against Syria (H.R. 1206 of 2/26/09), until these countries ceased support for Hamas, Hizballah, and others; withhold funding for UNRWA until the secretary of state certifies that UNRWA does not employ or aid terrorists (H.R. 557 of 1/15/09); and prohibit funding for the UN Human Rights Council since it has failed to condemn nations that sponsor terrorism (H.R. 2376 of 5/12/09).
Thirteen bills (20% of relevant bills) dealt with the Holocaust, including three to allow U.S. courts to hear cases brought by Holocaust survivors or their heirs seeking restitution from railroads that transported people to concentration camps (S. 28 of 1/7/09 and H.R. 4237 of 12/8/09) or to recover unpaid Holocaust-era insurance policies (Title XV of H.R. 2475 of 5/19/09). Others sought to establish a commission to review the U.S. government’s decision to deny asylum to Jewish and other refugees fleeing Europe during the Holocaust (H.R. 1425 and S. 564 both of 3/10/09); encourage foreign governments to try or extradite Nazi war criminals (H.R. 1439 of 3/11/09 and S. 1704 of 9/24/09); or provide funding for Holocaust education programs (H.R. 2089 and S. 892 both of 4/23/09) or for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews (H.R. 1590 of 3/18/09). Another cited Iranian pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denials of the Holocaust as reason to impose crippling economic sanctions on Iran and ensure that the United States possesses the military means to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons (H.R. 3832 of 10/15/09).
Simple and Concurrent Resolutions
In addition to the measures that have the force of law if passed, 45 simple and concurrent resolutions were introduced this session. Simple resolutions (designated H./S. Res.) are debated and passed in only one chamber, while concurrent resolutions (designated H./S. Con. Res.) are debated and passed by both chambers. Neither type of resolution is presented to the president for signature or veto, and thus neither can become law. Pertinent here are resolutions used to express the views, opinions, and (on occasion) the demands of Congress. (Resolutions are also used to set parliamentary rules and procedures for each chamber.) A resolution passed in one or both chambers not only represents the opinion of one chamber or the legislative branch as a whole, but in most cases the opinion of one or both political parties and their leadership. While not legally binding, then, resolutions can carry significant political weight.
When the 111th Congress convened, Operation Cast Lead was still underway, and four resolutions were introduced in the first four days of the session declaring “strong support for Israel,” recognizing its right to defend itself from Hamas’s “unceasing aggression,” and condemning Hamas’s rocket attacks. The two most important of these measures, H. Res. 34 and S. Res. 10 (both of 1/8/09), were introduced by the top Democratic leaders in the House and Senate and passed overwhelmingly within one day. One additional resolution called for an immediate ceasefire and for Israel and Hamas to allow unrestricted humanitarian assistance to Gazans (H. Res. 66 of 1/15/09). Later in the session another resolution was passed deeming the Goldstone report irredeemably biased and calling on the Obama administration to oppose it in all international fora.
The most common theme of resolutions this session, however, was Iran, with twelve introduced (27% of all relevant resolutions). Among these, four resolutions addressed the lack of religious freedom in Iran, with three condemning its persecution of its Baha’i minority as agents of Israel (H. Res. 175 of 2/13/09, S. Res. 71 of 3/9/09, and H. Res. 840 of 10/15/09) and two citing Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust and statements against Israel as having created a climate of fear among Iranian Jews (H. Res. 33 of 1/8/09 and H. Res. 840 mentioned above). Two resolutions cited Iran’s possession of ballistic missiles capable of striking Israel as justification for calls for President Obama to deploy ballistic missile defenses in Europe (H. Res. 319 of 4/2/09 and H. Res. 581 of 6/25/09), and one expressed support for Israel’s right to defend itself from an imminent threat posed by Iran (H. Res. 557 of 6/18/09).
Eleven resolutions (24% of relevant resolutions) dealt with the Holocaust, with three urging European countries to compensate Holocaust victims for lost property (H. Con. Res. 89 of 3/30/09, S. Res. 153 of 5/19/09, and S. Con. Res. 23 of 5/19/09) and others commemorating specific events or individuals, and permitting the use of the Capitol rotunda to hold a Holocaust remembrance ceremony. Ten resolutions addressed the topic of terrorism, of which three passed. Four resolutions, mentioned above, addressed terrorism leading up to and during Operation Cast Lead. Further resolutions expressed support for Israel’s right to defend itself from imminent threats from terrorist organizations and states that harbor them (H. Res. 557 mentioned above), called on the president to designate Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism for its support of Iran and Hizballah (H. Res. 872 of 10/27/09), and called on the secretary of state to take measures to certify that UNRWA is not using American funds to support terrorism (H. Con. Res. 29 of 1/28/09).